The recent deaths of celebrities from drug overdose have brought to the public eye the prevalence of heroin abuse in America. But there are many more tragedies on a daily basis, names you’ve never heard of, but utterly devastating to friends and families. In New York City for example, heroin-related deaths increased 84% from 2010-2012.
A National Problem
NYC isn’t the only place in America which has experienced a large increase in heroin abuse and death by overdose. Cities like Philadelphia, Cleveland, and New Orleans have noted a sharp increase in overdose deaths in 2013 – many of which relate specifically to heroin abuse. Massachusetts State Police report that at least 185 people have died from suspected heroin overdose since November 2013. This caused the governor of Massachusetts to declare a public health emergency.
The idyllic state of Vermont is now one of the heroin capitals of America. Just in the last year it has seen a 40% spike in individuals seeking treatment for heroin abuse. Heroin overdose death doubled in one year between 2012 and 2013. A staggering 80% of Vermont’s prison inmates are addicted to heroin. This huge increase of heroin abuse in “The Green Mountain State” caused the Governor to declare war against heroin trafficking by hitting the problem in two ways: Treating existing addicts while cutting off supply lines from New York into Vermont.
Nationally, the heroin use statistics are equally alarming. Heroin abuse in the US has been on the rise since 2007, with the numbers about doubling over the last seven years.
This brings the question to mind: Why is heroin addiction such a problem once again? Americans haven’t seen such extreme numbers in heroin addiction since the 70’s and 80’s when a rash of famous deaths and several concentrated anti-drug campaigns appeared to help quench the rise of heroin abuse.
Prescription Pills: The New Heroin Gateway Drug
Recent studies show that the increase in prescriptions of opioid painkillers may be one of the factors behind the spike in heroin abuse across America. We already know that emergency room visits for abuse and overdose of pain pills has increased, but there are other factors at work. Heroin, morphine, and the array of synthetic or semi-synthetic opioids all share common characteristics. The term “opioid” is often used in reference to the prescription formulas. Heroin, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, etc. are all “opiates” or “opium-like” by chemical composition.
The prices for prescription opioid painkillers have increased, and one of the most commonly abused painkillers, OxyContin, has adopted an abuse-resistant manufacturing process. OxyContin (“Oxy”) would be crushed so the addict could snort, smoke or inject it and thus bypass the time-release characteristic. With the new formula, when OxyContin is crushed, it turns into a mush, making this form of abuse difficult if not impossible.
The Federal government has also stepped in to try and abate the number of prescription refills allowed per patient for these drugs. On top of all of this, many ethical doctors got wise to their so-called “chronic pain patients” who were really addicts looking for a fix. Pharmacists are also now advised to refuse to fill prescriptions for individuals who appear to be addicted.
The combination of price increase, lowered availability, and a tamper-proof formula has motivated addicts to turn to the cheap, easy-to-find alternative: Heroin. Once an individual tries heroin, there is a 25% chance they’ll be hooked. That is, if they aren’t already hooked to prescription painkillers.
Why is Heroin so Addictive?
Heroin is in the same drug category as prescription opioids like Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, methadone and morphine. All of these drugs are formulations of opium (a drug derived from the opium poppy) or they contain synthetic approximations of opium. Heroin is actually highly processed morphine. The use of opiates for the purpose of relieving severe pain goes back centuries and there are certainly valid uses for painkillers in medicine and for surgery. The addictive properties of these drugs are widely-known. Opium addiction in China, Europe and America goes back centuries as well.
When someone uses heroin, morphine, or any opioid, the drug latches onto and activates specific parts of the brain. These brain receptors regulate pain, hormone release, and feelings of pleasure. The drug stimulates the release of a brain chemical called dopamine, which causes the user to feel intense pleasure.
Other immediate effects heroin has on the brain and body are:
- Dry mouth
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Severe itching
- Clouded mental function
- Blocked pain
- Slowed heartbeat and breathing (in the case of overdose, these vital functions are slowed dangerously or stop altogether)
Once the opioid has worn off, the individual can be immediately plunged into withdrawal symptoms, which include:
- Agitation, anxiety, and depression
- Muscle and bone aches
- Fever symptoms
- Nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea
Many users “treat” these withdrawal symptoms by taking more heroin.
Additionally, addicted individuals are looking to experience the same high they felt the first time they took their drug of choice. They “chase” this high by taking more and more of the drug until they either overdose (and possibly die) or get help.
Long Term Heroin Use
Over time, heroin abuse can cause some really horrific effects. Here is a short list of the physical and mental effects of heroin addiction:
- Weakened immune system
- Permanent infertility in men
- Sexual difficulties for men and women
- Mood swings
- Contraction of HIV/AIDS
- Partial paralysis
- Lung disease
- Heart disease
Opioids are not meant for consistent, long term use. They have debilitating physical effects when used in the long term. The ultimate effects of such drugs are much worse than any withdrawal symptoms caused by getting off the drug.
Heroin Pipeline into America
Traditionally, city centers were the main domain of heroin junkies. This is no longer the case. The amount of heroin reaching suburban areas around the US is an indicator of recent changes in the pipeline which feeds heroin into America.
In previous decades, America received heroin mainly from the “golden triangle” of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand and from the “golden crescent” of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. These areas still produce huge amounts of heroin, but Latin America and Mexico have gotten into the heroin production and distribution racket.
Because production of heroin has become more local to America and there is such a high level of supply, the street price of heroin has been driven down. Not only is the price lower, but the quality of heroin is higher. Many suppliers of heroin “cut” the drug with something else – often a cheap household item like baby powder or sugar. But the high availability and low cost has enabled drug dealers to pass along a product with a higher purity level. This has the tragic result of attracting more users – as high quality heroin can be snorted or smoked. This means potential users who would be put off by “shooting up” will try heroin by smoking or snorting and subsequently get hooked.
Getting the Monkey Off Your Back
Heroin abuse is extremely dangerous and debilitating but addicts continue using the drug due to its highly addictive nature. The pill addict is often a short jump away from becoming a heroin junkie. All these factors have combined to form what is now a modern day problem. If you or someone you know is addicted to heroin or prescription opioids, please seek help on an immediate basis.
With this modern problem, come modern detoxification techniques that help an addict get off opiates in a safe and relatively comfortable manner. Holistic rehabilitation offers a chance to build a new life free from the harsh and deadly effects of opiate abuse and dependence.